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Food wastage: A warm reception for some cool thinking

Dr Tim Fox

Dr Tim Fox reflects on how the Institution acts as a catalyst for action both in the UK and globally.

Last week I was at Princeton University in the USA, as the only invited speaker from the UK at the ‘Engineering Strategies for a Sustainable Food Supply Chain Workshop’.

Funded by the United Engineering Foundation (UEF), the event brought together a wide range of engineering and science experts from across the States to explore technological approaches to improving the sustainability of the global food supply chain.

Particular attention was paid to the issue of food wastage and the need for sustainable sources of cold to use in pre-chilling, freezing, produce storage, refrigerated transport and, of course, retailer display cabinets and domestic fridges and freezers.

The US is certainly playing catch up in this area and people there were keen to hear the Institution’s thinking on both food waste, which is largely a consumer and retailer behaviour issue, and food loss, which is primarily a result of produce spoilage through poor handling, storage and transport between the field and marketplace.

They were particularly grateful to be briefed on our two major reports on this topic, as well as our substantial contribution to the recently published and well-respected WRAP-NCE study into the benefits of reducing global food waste. WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, is a UK Government (Defra) funded organisation which is influential in policy making and seen worldwide to be a beacon of best practice on action to reduce food waste.

While I was briefing our American cousins, back in the UK, the University of Birmingham was announcing its latest Policy Commission on the subject of 'Doing Cold Smarter', to be chaired by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Teverson and led by the newly formed Birmingham Energy Institute. 

The objective of this initiative is to “explore how the provision of cold can be transformed through new technology; how cold infrastructure should be delivered at a national and international level; and how the UK can become a leader in the burgeoning clean cold industry.”

A few days later, in the UK, the Chancellor announced in his Budget speech the award of £60 million of funding to a consortium of Midlands-based universities to establish The Energy Research Accelerator, which will, amongst other things, investigate thermal energy technology for sustainable cold provision through a Birmingham led project.

I draw your attention to these events, not just because they are interesting for engineers and have some common themes, but to highlight how together they become a much bigger story for us at the Institution.

Just over 8 months ago we published A Tank of Cold: Cleantech Leapfrog to a More Food Secure World, which was the logical next step from our 2013 high impact report Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. A Tank of Cold was the first Institution report to be launched in India, an event that took place just days after our major international Clean and Cool Summit held at 1 Birdcage Walk.

The report has gained considerable traction on the sub-continent, not only with the media/press (close to 150 articles on-line and in print to date), but also the national and state governments, industry and academia.

It called for urgent action to encourage the roll out of sustainable cold and frozen food supply chains or ‘cold chains’ in the developing world, in order to prevent unnecessary food loss, help alleviate hunger and improve global food security. Feasibility studies and pilot projects to transform the solutions and approaches proposed in the report into actions on the ground are in discussion and I anticipate announcements in the near future.

In addition to the specific focus on reducing perishable food loss in developing economies, the report also made a first articulation of a broader concept we called the 'cold economy', and one of its key recommendations was a call for the UK engineering community to “come together to define in detail the potential opportunities a joined-up cold economy presents for the developed and developing world.”

It goes on: “As a leader in the field of the industrial application of cold, as well as in renewable energy utilisation, clean technologies and energy systems integration... the nation is well placed to lead on work to… explore the environmental and societal benefits of establishing cold-chain economies.”

Prestigious affairs, Birmingham University does not choose its 'Commission' topics and 'Commissioners' lightly. I am therefore very pleased to see that within a year of publication, the ‘cold economy’, as well as the need to deliver cold more sustainably, has gained substantial momentum. Through this Birmingham based initiative, and the integration by WRAP of our thinking into their work, we have taken a big step towards adoption of a ‘Tank of Cold’ into UK policy development.

People often ask me: "What does success look like for the Institution in terms of thought leadership activities?"

My reply is always: "When other players around the world have adopted our thinking and we have catalysed tangible action on our report findings, ideas and recommendations".

These stories from the USA, UK and India are good examples of that, and I think we can proudly say we have chalked up yet another success from A Tank of Cold.

Dr Tim Fox, CEng CEnv FIMechE FRSA, is the Institution's Head of Energy and Environment. His primary focus is providing thought leadership on how to sustainably meet the major challenges facing human populations in 21st Century, namely food, water, energy and shelter provision in the context of increasing environmental risk and depleting natural resources.

Contact Tim via Twitter 
@TimFox_IMechE.

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